When Comcast launched its own commercial content delivery network service very quietly about a month ago, the move was either a sign of revolutionary shifts in the CDN business or a mundane extension of what the cable company was already offering. It all depends on how you look at it.
Arguing for the mundane position, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s CDN service -- part of Comcast Wholesale -- is similar to the Comcast HITS program the company has been running for years. Like HITS (once known by its full name Headend in the Sky), the commercial CDN offering simplifies video delivery and removes the headache and cost of major infrastructure investment. Dozens or more smaller cable operators use HITS to manage content for linear and on-demand distribution.
Back when Comcast launched HITS in the 1990s, the systems that cable used for video were entirely proprietary to the industry. Now everyone is moving video to IP, for business, communication and entertainment. And that means there are many more players in the ecosystem and more money at stake.
As the IP video model matures, many major players are also recognizing the importance of pairing video delivery with video processing services like video ingestion, compression, formatting and monetization. Witness Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) acquiring video processing specialist Elemental Technologies Inc. (ETI) , Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) acquiring upLynk and EdgeCast, and Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE) continuing to expand its Primetime multiscreen video solution while also partnering with leading CDN providers like Akamai Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: AKAM) and Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT). (See IP Video Services Explode at IBC.)
Comcast is just the latest company to bundle video processing with delivery. But the news is worthy of note both because of the operator's size, and some of the service's unique qualities.
What's so special about Comcast?
Comcast has been working with video for a long time, and it has massive deployments to prove it can deliver the goods successfully. Long before launching a CDN product for commercial sale, Comcast built a content delivery network for its own use.
"It's probably been about ten years that Comcast has had a CDN. But only within probably the last three years did we really move to a highly scalable open source platform that really lends itself to being able to be customized for not just Comcast services, but third-party services," says Barry Tishgart, VP of IP services for Comcast Wholesale.
Tishgart argues that Comcast didn't bolt its CDN feature on to its video infrastructure (a reference to Verizon's acquisition of EdgeCast), but instead has steadily integrated delivery with the end-to-end process of video distribution.
"I feel like we're more integrated in terms of our capabilities across the workflow," says Tishgart, referring to content ingest, management, processing and delivery. "And I think we have more robust acquisition and ingest capabilities than anybody."
Tishgart also emphasizes the open source nature of the CDN platform. Research and analysis firm Bizety Technologies confirms that Comcast is indeed the only cable operator in the world using open source software.
"We think the open source is an advantage," says Tishgart, "and building everything from the ground up is a bit of an advantage because it leaves us a little bit better positioned for the future."
Tishgart adds, "You think about some things that are getting some attention these days, like looking at 4K or 8K, some high-bitrate types of services, HVEC and DASH. And then dynamic ad insertion is another area that's getting a lot of play… And we can just add those features as plugins to our caching technology."
If all that sounds like New IP technology, it is. According to Tishgart, Comcast is working on a number of software-driven features already, including self-provisioning, with more capabilities on the way.
Comcast is also championing a multi-CDN approach for video providers. It's common practice for big media companies today to use more than one CDN. But Tishgart says that the trend is expanding, so that media operations like Disney, for example, are looking at using multiple CDNs for individual media properties, and not just allocating different vendors to different business units.
"[It's] just like what happened with Internet. At a certain point in time, companies had one Internet provider. And then it became easy with BGP to use multiple Internet providers, and that provided a ton of benefits, not just with cost and being able to arbitrage for the best pricing, but also for redundancy and reliability and then for optimal performance," notes Tishgart. "So you see that same kind of thinking coming into the CDN world."
Performance monitoring and optimization company Cedexis can attest to the effectiveness of this model. Cedexis measures latency and throughput for different CDNs and then compares those numbers with the performance that could be achieved with an optimized multi-CDN system. According to Cedexis's calculations, companies can drop their latency rates for content delivery by half or more with a multi-CDN approach.
Taken as a whole, Comcast believes its CDN strengths comes from integration with the larger video workflow, an open source model for deployment and an acknowledgement that multiple CDNs beat a single-source CDN strategy. Whether Comcast can succeed with these strengths remains to be seen, but Tishgart says the company will have case studies soon to help prove its legitimacy.
In the meantime, Comcast's entry into the CDN market highlights a much bigger trend worth watching: the importance of content delivery networks and software-based optimization as video takes over the Internet.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading